By Shelley Dekker
Gil Wheless moved to Trinity Park as a boy in 1949 and returned to Durham in 2008 after a long and successful career as a landscape architect in Greenwich, CT. He lives in his childhood home at 1021 W. Trinity Avenue. Gil and I spoke recently in his library.
Why did your parents decide to move to Trinity Park?
My parents, Gilbert and Evelyn Wheless, lived in Raleigh after they were married in 1940, and that is where I was born. We moved to Roanoke, VA, when I was a young boy and lived there for 8 years, and when we returned to NC we lived briefly in a little brick house on Hope Valley Rd. The house is still there. When this house on Trinity Ave. came up for sale, Daddy bought it. Mother had grown up down the block (her parents were D.C. and Lona Barbee), and it was ideal for Mother to be close to Grandaddy, who was still living there at the time. My grandparents had helped to start Watts Street Baptist Church with
C.T. Council and some others, and my grandparents’ house was used for church services before Watts Street Baptist was completed.
What are some of your memories of growing up in Trinity Park?
I went to George Watts School, which went through the 6th grade. We performed wonderful plays there. There was a costume shop which had beautiful, really fine costumes, like those on Broadway, and we were measured and fitted for them. We received great experience in singing and acting, and we performed on a stage on the second floor of the school.
My mother was wonderful at bringing people together, and she was the den mother of our Cub Scout troop, which was full of boys from the neighborhood, and we met in our basement.
There was a large house on the lot where the park is now (I took piano lessons there, and Daddy rented a room there while he was dating Mother), and I seem to remember there may have been a fire upstairs. But anyway the house and a garage behind it were torn down. There was a large hickory tree, loaded with nuts. My friends and I would gather the nuts, collect them and store them in a garage off the alley. The garage had what was like a hayloft with a ladder, and we would store these nuts by the barrel-full up in the loft. We had slingshots. We were ready for the Germans! Of course this never amounted to anything.
As a boy I played with little metal soldiers and horses. There was a large tree with exposed roots near the sidewalk up the street. I would scratch and dig under the roots and make a fort for my figurines. When the acorns fell, I gathered the “hats” from the acorns to depict the enemies.
After attending George Watts, we went to Carr Junior High School. There we met kids who had attended E.K. Powe and Morehead schools, and this really broadened our horizons. We took ballroom dancing lessons downtown on the second floor of a building. It was called Satterfield’s Dance Studio. We also went swimming at the YMCA down on Trinity which was new at the time and very nice. I would stop on my way home from school at the Piggly Wiggly on Gregson St. for a popsicle. Then I would visit my grandparents and walk down the alley toward my house and begin to enter through the backyard, but my neighbor Nannie Lawrance would make a chess pie every day, and I would smell the pie, and then I would hear her [sing-song voice] say, “Gil-bert, I have a chess pie for you.” And so I would go visit her and have a piece of chess pie. So it took me a long time to get home from school.
My mother shopped for groceries at the A&P that was across the street from Duke Memorial United Methodist Church where there is a parking lot now. She also chose fresh vegetables every week delivered by a farmer who would stop by our house with a trailer/ cart from his farm. She shopped for clothes downtown at Montaldo’s or Ellis-Stone.
In high school at Durham High the social life was fabulous. We went to dances all the time. The men wore coats and ties. There was often live music. The debutante events lasted two weeks at a time, and there would be breakfasts, teas, and dinners leading up to the balls. We fixed up our basement as a place where my friends and I could play music and dance. And then another friend fixed up her basement, and then another friend fixed up his basement, and so on, and we took turns hosting. We also walked to Durham Bulls games.
How long were you away from Durham, and why did you return?
After I received my landscape architecture degree from NC State, I was hired by A. E. Bye of Greenwich, CT. I was away from 1967 to 2008. I’d come home to visit about twice a year. My brother lived for a time across the street from our house in the Sloan House. My Aunt Becky lived down the street in another house. Daddy’s business partner, Sam Watkins, lived across the street where Hanne Rogers used to live. Every time I drove down from Connecticut and got close to Durham and saw the sign for Gregson St., I just felt like I was home. There are so many happy memories. I would not have been able to drive down Trinity Ave. if we [my family] had sold this house. After buying it from my brother, I made some architectural changes, opened it up. It provides nourishment. It is what architecture should be.
Thank you, Gil, for sharing your memories and your love of Trinity Park!